Sunday, October 24th | 18 Heshvan 5782

July 6, 2020 3:19 am

Should Statues Have Been Erected in the First Place?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A bronze statue of the late Pope John Paul II in Teramo, Italy. Photo: Eyepix/Cover Image via Reuters.

All of a sudden it has become fashionable in the US to take down or demolish some statues. There is a case to be made that none of them should have been put up in the first place.

The earliest statues we have discovered were of pagan gods. The oldest is a fertility figurine discovered in Northern Israel at Berekhet Ram, around 230,000 years ago, while the earliest European ones go back merely 30,000 years.

With the emergence of Biblical monotheism, all such figurines and idols were strictly forbidden. But human nature being what it is, even most Israelites continued to worship them, sometimes as independent gods, sometimes as agents of a single greater and non-representable one. They obviously believed in hedging their bets.

The wonderful Greek figures we see today were of gods and heroes. Some like to argue that it was the Greeks who first reproduced the human form for purely aesthetic reasons. And indeed, Aristotle wrote an important book on aesthetics.

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Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman and Christian emperor Theodosius, following the Biblical law against idols, banned any kind of pagan statues. But as Christianity expanded and fractured, effigies began to proliferate in the Catholic west; in the Orthodox east, icons were permitted because they were only two dimensional. During the history of Christianity, there have often been periods of iconoclasm that led to the destruction or defacing of statues. This is why in many museums today, you can see human forms without arms or noses.

Judaism and Christianity interpreted the second of the Ten Commandments in different ways.

“You shall not make an idol and any picture of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath. Do not bow down to them or worship them.”

Were these two sentences one or two commandments? Many Christians believed they were one.

But most rabbinic authorities have interpreted the second commandment to mean that one cannot make any image at all of the human figure or any other image intended for worship as gods. However, some have argued that one may possess two-dimensional art for purely aesthetic purposes and whole-body sculptures only if incomplete. In some early synagogues, there were indeed two-dimensional mosaics of Biblical characters. Look up the Dura Europus synagogue (in what is now called Syria), which dates to the third century. Some even argue that the cherubs over the ark show that images were allowed much earlier.

Abstract, non-representational art presents no difficulties (other than price). And nowadays, there are plenty of very Orthodox artists churning out art (usually of very moderate merit). Some religious extremists still insist on no images at all. But there has always been a distinction between the tolerant attitudes of rabbis living under Islam, which also forbade images, in contrast to those living in Christian societies that have religious effigies. Maimonides even recommends looking at beautiful objects and architecture for inspiration in his Eight Chapters.

The Greeks and Romans liked to have statues of victorious generals. And of course every incoming victor set about smashing all traces of the defeated. Fortunately, some were left so that we now have important archaeological information that helps us understand other societies, even evil ones. In the past, statues have played a part in recording the cultures and histories of nations. But in Judaism, statues never caught on. We did not go in for that kind of glorification or hero worship.

So what should we think about this new iconoclasm that seems to demand the removal of any statue any group feels offended by? I was taught in Britain to recognize the difference between good and bad characters, and that attitudes and opinions constantly change. And I was fully aware of how many of those kings and figures commemorated in public buildings, institutions, and universities had persecuted and despised Jews. But knowing that made me proud of our destiny and that we had survived it all. To eradicate the past and its symbols prevents learning its lessons.

You might argue that we should not impose statues on the public altogether, particularly in multicultural societies. The public arena needs to be safe for every group. If there are statues that offend sensibilities and we cannot agree, then indeed it makes sense to take them down and remove them to museums where we can teach the next generation to be less narrow minded and prejudiced. Oh yes, and we should plant trees instead. Better for the air and the climate.

Revolutions are intoxicating, particularly for young idealists, firebrands, and anarchists. But the record of both fascists and Marxists is not a good one. Incremental change works better. There have been plenty of changes over the years. America today is not the America of 50 years ago. There has been a black president and black police chiefs. Although more is needed for many minorities and disadvantaged sectors of our societies, it will come.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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